Anti self help

Instead of getting in touch with your inner self, Svend Brinkmann thinks we'd be better off learning how to coexist with others

His anti-self-help book, published last autumn, offers seven rather different steps for improving our lives. Instead of suggesting that we “listen to our inner self”, Brinkmann thinks we should do the opposite and listen more to the world around us. His book is a cultural critique, not only of the type of advice found in self-help books, but also of a modern society that created the problems self-help books address.

Despite many positive reviews, Brinkmann’s book has also faced criticism from practicing psychologists who argue the book needlessly dismisses the benefits of self-help. In our interview, Svend Brinkmann defends his book and takes us through his seven pieces of vital advice for dealing with modern society.

1. Stop feeling 

Brinkmann’s first step is to stop feeling. He has a problem with the industry of books advising people to take a look inside themselves as a way to find their true feelings.

“I’m worried about this kind of literature,” Brinkmann explains on the phone from Aalborg.

“These kinds of books want you to take a look inside yourself as a way to find your true inner self. They argue that this will help you realise your dreams and ambitions. But it’s too self-centred.”

Brinkmann argues that there are some things we should do in life even if our inner self disagrees, because it’s the only way to peacefully coexist with others.

“In life we have certain obligations. I believe that the most important things in life are those that are related to others. Life only becomes meaningful through relationships and having responsibility to other human beings.”

Brinkmann worries that by focusing too much on accomplishing our own dreams, we create a society devoid of compassion and empathy.

“My concern is that self-help books create self-centred and narcissistic human beings. This might not be the intention of the books – it might be even the opposite. The idea is to create joyful and peaceful people. But their way of getting there is by encouraging readers to think about nothing else but themselves.”

2. Focus on the negative things in life 

When Barabara Ehrenreich was diagnosed with breast cancer, she was told by the hospital to think positively about her disease. After her hospitalisation she wrote the book “Welcome to Cancerland”, chronicling how she used the disease to grow by learning about herself.

Svend Brinkmann argues this is an excellent example of a common message to stay positive in a difficult situation. But his advice, rather, is to be negative.

“If you can’t live up to expectation of being mindful and present at all times, I’m sure you’ll be OK. For example, with the breast cancer sufferer who is urged by the hospital to maintain a positive mindset. This is problematic because we can then blame the victim if their condition worsens, and they will end up blaming themselves too. But cancer is a physical disease and it has nothing do to with how you feel or think.”

Feeling negative is a normal part of life and Brinkmann thinks that doesn’t need to change.

3. Learn how to complain

It is important to discuss and complain about aspects of our lives that aren’t working out. The problem is that our positive-thinking society doesn’t allow negativity.

“We live in a culture that reveres the positive, but my book is a defence of the lives of regular people and the human condition – we just can’t be positive all the time,” Brinkmann explains.

“There is nothing wrong with not being positive and future-oriented, but we don’t need to celebrate and praise these conditions as the only way in life. What we need to do is respond to them smartly and with an appeal to stability. We are badly in need of that today. There is a pressure to constantly be dynamic, flexible and willing to adapt. But that’s just one side of life. The other side is about stability rather than flexibility,” he says.

4. Oppress your feelings 

We are too concerned with our own feelings, Brinkmann argues, which isn’t the best way to navigate life. Judging our lives based on our feelings ignores the fact that most of our meaning in life is derived through coexistence.

“We need to focus more on other people and our obligations to them – on things other than ourselves.  My concern is that we become blind if our lives are too focused on constantly chasing our own inner happiness,” he says.

“I believe the right answers to life’s important questions are found in relation to culture and perhaps nature – through our relationship to other people and our obligations. The answers aren’t found inside ourselves,” Brinkmann says.

5. Fire your coach 

A coach is an indicator that you want to find potential and development in your every step. Leadership and management use a great deal of money on coaching, but Brinkmann thinks it’s entirely unnecessary. He calls it forced development and thinks you should fire your coach as soon as possible.

“It’s misguided to believe that you can find answers inside yourself or be trained by a coach to help you reflect on your inner self and gain that information. But what is worse is that we believe this illusion, which I call forced growth,” Brinkmann says.

The problem is that this need to constantly develop disrupts our ability to establish engaging communities that rely on stable individuals gathered around shared values.

6. Read a novel 

Instead of constantly working on self-improvement, we should sit down and read a novel and focus our attention on something other than how we feel.

“We are both created by, and dependent on, our heritage – where do we come from and what do we feel is valuable? Who we are isn’t simply looking toward the future. Of course growth is desirable and necessary, but so is stability, and self-help books are not helping us be stable. Sure, it’s good that they help us develop, which is important, but we have to recognise that the opposite is needed too. That’s why we need to slow down and stabilise our life a bit.”

7. Dwell on the past 

The culture of self-improvement is failing miserably, but Brinkmann isn’t worried. In fact, he thinks it’s great that people focus on the past rather than on their future better selves.

“We cannot ignore how history affects us. On Sundays this autumn, we’ve been sitting around the TV and watching 1864, which suddenly raised a lot of debate about our national identity and our personal histories. It’s normal to look back, and families keep photo albums that keep our history, regardless of how normal our families are,” Brinkmann says.

For herein lies a major struggle that society and self help books present: we are told to be and do things that we cannot relate to.

“I take issue with self-help books and management books that are completely disconnected from reality. There is a huge difference between how we behave and what the books tell us is the right thing to do. I would like to make a defence for the things we actually do. There is nothing wrong with dwelling on the past.” M

Culture, Commentary

By Lesley Price

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